Murray N. Rothbard, a scholar of extraordinary range, made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He developed and extended the Austrian economics of Ludwig von Mises, in whose seminar he was a principal participant for many years. He established himself as the main Austrian theorist in the latter half of the twentieth century and applied Austrian analysis to topics such as the Great Depression of 1929 and the history of American banking.
Rothbard was no ivory-tower scholar, interested only in academic controversies. Quite the contrary, he combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty. He developed a unique synthesis that combined themes from nineteenth-century American individualists such as Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker with Austrian economics. A new political philosophy was the result, and Rothbard devoted his remarkable intellectual energy, over a period of some forty-five years, to developing and promoting his style of libertarianism. In doing so, he became a major American public intellectual.
Murray Rothbard was born March 2, 1926, the son of David and Rae Rothbard. He was a brilliant student even as a young child; and his academic record at Columbia University, where he majored in mathematics and economics, was stellar. In the Columbia economics department, Rothbard did not receive any instruction in Austrian economics, and Mises was no more than a name to him. In a course on price theory given by George Stigler, however, he encountered arguments against such then popular measures as price and rent control. These arguments greatly appealed to him; and he wrote to the publisher of a pamphlet that Stigler and Milton Friedman had written on rent control.
The publisher in question was the Foundation for Economic Education; and visits to this group’s headquarters led Rothbard to a meeting with Ludwig von Mises. Rothbard was at once attracted to Mises’s laissez-faire economics, and when Mises’s masterwork Human Action appeared in 1949, it made a great impression on him. He was henceforward a praxeologist: here in Mises’s treatise was the consistent and rigorous defense of a free economy for which he had long been in search. He soon became an active member of Mises’s seminar at New York University. Meanwhile, he continued his graduate studies at Columbia, working toward his Ph.D. His mentor was the eminent economic historian Joseph Dorfman, and Rothbard received the degree in 1956, with a thesis on The Panic of 1819 that remains a standard work.
As he deepened his understanding of laissez-faire economics, he confronted a dilemma. The arguments for market provision of goods and services applied across the board. If so, should not even protection and defense be offered on the market rather than supplied by a coercive monopoly? Rothbard realized that he would either have to abandon laissez-faire or embrace individualist anarchy. The choice, arrived at in the winter of 1949, was not difficult.
Rothbard soon attracted the attention of the William Volker Fund, the main group that supported classical liberal scholars in the 1950s and early 1960s. He began a project to write a textbook to explain Human Action in a fashion suitable for college students; a sample chapter he wrote on money and credit won Mises’s approval. As Rothbard continued his work, he transformed the project. The result, Man, Economy, and State (1962), was a central work of Austrian economics.
Rothbard was entirely in accord with Mises’s endeavor to deduce the whole of economics from the axiom of action, combined with a few subsidiary postulates. In much more detail than Mises had done, he carried out the deduction; and in the process, he contributed major theoretical innovations to praxeology. He showed that the socialist calculation argument applies, not only to a governmentally controlled economy, but to a single private firm owning the entire economy as well. It too could not calculate. He also integrated Frank Fetter’s theory of rent with Austrian capital theory; and argued that a monopoly price could not exist on the free market. Further, he offered a brilliant criticism of Keynesian economics, and he anticipated much of the "rational expectations" revolution for which Robert Lucas later won a Nobel Prize.
As Rothbard originally planned Man, Economy, and State, it was to include a final part that presented a comprehensive classification and analysis of types of government intervention. The section also subjected to withering criticism the standard canons of justice in taxation; a brief but brilliant passage refuted in advance the anti-market arguments based on "luck" that were to prove so influential in the later work of John Rawls and his many successors. Unfortunately, the part appeared in the original edition only in a severely truncated form. Its full publication came only in 1972, under the title Power and Market. The complete version of Man, Economy, and State, as Rothbard originally intended it to appear, is now available from the Mises Institute.
This masterly work was far from exhausting Rothbard’s contributions to economic theory. In a major paper, "Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics" (1956), he showed that if one takes seriously the fact that utility is ordinal and not cardinal, then the anti-market views of most modern welfare economists must be abandoned. Strict application of demonstrated preference allows one to say that the participants to a voluntary exchange expect ex ante to benefit. Further than this, the economist, so long as he remains value-free, cannot go. His main papers on economic theory are available in the posthumously published two-volume collection The Logic of Action (1997).
Rothbard devoted close attention to monetary theory. Here he emphasized the virtues of the classical gold standard and supported 100% reserve banking. This system, he held, would prevent the credit expansion that, according to the Austrian theory of the business cycle developed by Mises and Friedrich Hayek, led to inevitable depression. He summarized his views for the general public in the often-reprinted pamphlet What Has Government Done to Our Money? (1964) and also wrote a textbook, The Mystery of Banking (1983).
Rothbard showed the illumination that Austrian theory could bring to economic history in America’s Great Depression (1963). Far from being a proof of the failures of unregulated capitalism, the 1929 Depression illustrates rather the dangers of government interference with the economy. The economic collapse came as a necessary correction to the artificial boom induced by the Federal Reserve System’s monetary expansion during the 1920s. The attempts by the government to "cure" the downturn served only to make matters worse.
In making this argument, Rothbard became a pioneer in "Hoover revisionism." Contrary to the myths promoted by Hoover himself and his acolytes, Hoover was not an opponent of big government. Quite the contrary, the economic policies of the " Engineer in Politics" prefigured the New Deal. Rothbard’s view of Hoover is now widely accepted.
For Rothbard, banking policy was a key to American economic history. Like Michelet, he believed that history is a resurrection of the flesh; and his discussions are no dry-as-dust presentations of statistics. He was always concerned to identify the particular actors and interests behind historical decisions. The struggle between the competing Morgan and Rockefeller banking circles figures again and again in his articles in this field, collected in his A History of Money and Banking in the United States (1999).
Rothbard ranged far beyond economics in his historical work. In a four-volume series, Conceived in Liberty, (1975—1979) he presented a detailed account of American colonial history that stressed the libertarian antecedents of the American Revolution. As usual, he challenged mainstream opinion. He had little use for New England Puritanism, and the virtues and military leadership of George Washington did not impress him. For Rothbard, the Articles of Confederation were not an overly weak arrangement that needed to be replaced by the more centrally focused Constitution. Quite the contrary, the Articles themselves allowed too much central control.
Although Rothbard usually found himself in close agreement with Mises, in one area he maintained that Mises was mistaken. Mises contended that ethical judgments were subjective: ultimate ends are not subject to rational assessment. Rothbard dissented, maintaining that an objective ethics could be founded on the requirements of human nature. His approach, based on his study of Aristotelian and Thomist philosophy, is presented in his major work The Ethics of Liberty (1982), his major study of political philosophy.
In his system of political ethics, self-ownership is the basic principle. Given a robust conception of self-ownership, a compulsory government monopoly of protective services is illegitimate; and Rothbard endeavors to refute the arguments to the contrary of supporters of a minimal state, Robert Nozick chief among them. He contributes important clarifications to problems of libertarian legal theory, such as the nature of contracts and the appropriate standard of punishment. He explains why Mises’s instrumental argument for the market does not fully succeed, though he finds much of value in it; and he criticizes in careful detail Hayek’s view of the rule of law.
Rothbard modified the famous dictum of Marx: he wished both to understand and change the world. He endeavored to apply the ideas he had developed in his theoretical work to current politics and to bring libertarian views to the attention of the general public. One issue for him stood foremost. Like Randolph Bourne, he maintained that "war is the health of the state"; he accordingly opposed an aggressive foreign policy.
His support for nonintervention in foreign policy led him to champion the Old Right. John T. Flynn, Garet Garrett and other pre-World War II "isolationists" shared Rothbard’s belief in the close connection between state power and bellicose foreign policy.
The situation was quite otherwise with postwar conservatism. Although Rothbard was an early contributor to William Buckley’s National Review, he rejected the aggressive pursuit of the Cold War advocated by Buckley and such members of his editorial staff as James Burnham and Frank S. Meyer. He broke with these self-styled conservatives and thereafter became one of their strongest opponents. For similar reasons, he condemned their neoconservative successors. He followed a pragmatic policy of temporary alliances with whatever groups were, at a given time, opposed to militarism and foreign adventures. He set forward the basis for his political stance in a key essay, "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty." This appeared in an important scholarly journal, Left and Right, which he established. This contained major essays on revisionist history and foreign policy, but unfortunately lasted only from 1965—1968.
In an effort to widen the influence of libertarian thought in the academic world, Rothbard founded the Journal of Libertarian Studies in 1977. The journal began auspiciously with a symposium on Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Down to the present, it has remained the most important journal hospitable to libertarian ideas.
Rothbard established in 1987 another journal, the Review of Austrian Economics, to provide a scholarly venue for economists and others interested in Austrian theory. It too is the key journal in its area of specialty. It has continued to the present, after 1997 under the new name Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.
In his comments on current events, Rothbard displayed an amazing ability to digest vast quantities of information on whatever subject interested him. Whether, e.g., the question was competing factions in Afghanistan or the sources of investment in oil in the Middle East, he would always have the relevant data at his command. A sample of his columns, taken from the Rockwell Rothbard Report, is available in The Irrepressible Rothbard (2000). Another journal that he founded, The Libertarian Forum, provides his topical comments for the period 1969-1984. He presented a comprehensive popular account of libertarianism in For A New Liberty (1973).
One last academic triumph remained for Rothbard, though sadly it appeared only after his death. In two massive volumes, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith and Classical Economics (1995), he presented a minutely detailed and erudite account of the history of economic theory. Adam Smith, contrary to general belief, was not the founder of modern economics. His defense of a labor theory of value, modified and continued by his Ricardian successors, shunted economics onto the wrong path. The heroes of Rothbard’s study were the Spanish scholastics, who long before Smith had developed a subjective theory of value, and such later figures as Cantillon, Turgot, and Say. He dissects the heretical religious thought that prefigured Marxism and gives a mordant portrayal of the personality and thought of John Stuart Mill.
Rothbard was closely associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute from its founding in 1982 by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. This organization became the main vehicle for the promotion of his ideas, and he served as its Academic Vice-President.
He taught at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s; from 1986 to his death on January 7, 1995, he was S.J. Hall Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The "indispensable framework" for the life and work of this creative genius and polymath was his beloved wife, JoAnn Rothbard. His combination of scholarly achievement and engaged advocacy on behalf of freedom is unmatched.
July 30, 2005
See also Lew Rockwell’s Murray N. Rothbard: A Legacy of Liberty.